O'Donnell isn't looking for fame, but may get it anyway

Wrestler's Olympic odyssey takes her from Homer, Alaska, to Athens, Greece

Posted: Sunday, August 15, 2004

ATHENS, Greece - The TV reporter finished the interview by pointing out to Tela O'Donnell that "The Rock" had gone from wrestling to Hollywood.

Would she, he asked, be interested in making that kind of transition?

O'Donnell laughed and said: "I don't know if I'd be a very good famous person."

Maybe not. But the 22-year-old wrestler from Homer, Alaska, certainly handled some international attention Wednesday. The U.S. women's wrestling team - here in Athens to compete in a new Olympic sport - held a press conference that drew about 100 journalists, some of them showing up out of curiosity, others looking for a good story. And O'Donnell certainly provided the latter.

She retold her story - about growing up in Homer, about her mother's training as a mime, about getting into wrestling - to everyone from ESPN to Japanese writers.

"My dad is Japanese," she said, explaining the roots of her name. "My mom spent a lot of time in Japan. And the culture was very important to her."

Her father lives in Hawaii. But Homer is home not only for O'Donnell, but also for Olympic rower Stacey Borgman.

O'Donnell and Borgman are two of four Olympic athletes from Alaska - the others are Carlos Boozer of Juneau in men's basketball and former University of Alaska Fairbanks shooter Matt Emmons. Jeff Donaldson of Juneau is working as the team bike mechanic for USA Triathlon at the Olympics.

"It has been great," O'Donnell said of the reaction back in Alaska. "Everybody is so genuinely happy for you. They feel like they have a part in your success. And, really, they do."

Her mother, Claire, is coming to Athens for the Games. So are an aunt, a couple of good friends and some of her coaches. For now, she plans to let them go sightseeing.

"I'm pretty focused on wrestling," she said. "Afterwards, I'm going to have some fun."

She doesn't start competition until Aug. 22. And because of her surprising run in the Olympic trials, she is somewhat of an unknown quantity in the 55-kilogram weight class (121 pounds). Sports Illustrated predicted that the medals will go to two-time defending world champion Saori Yoshida of Japan, Russia's Natalia Golts and China's Sun Dongmei.

"In her weight class, Japan's wrestler definitely to me is, pound for pound, the best in the world right now," U.S. coach Terry Steiner said. "But Tela brings a dynamic style, and that's probably the best way to wrestle against Japan.

"Tela has such an unorthodox style - she'll be hard to prepare for. She does things you don't teach, and things I wouldn't teach to other wrestlers. But it works for her."

If it continues to work for her - if her already interesting story gets even better with a medal in Athens - don't be surprised if O'Donnell gets something she isn't sure she wants. Fame.

"I don't know," she said. "I just don't like attention."

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